Willie Nelson & Family in Atlantic City (August 16, 2015)


by Dan DeLuca

Willie Nelson is an extraordinary octogenarian. The 82 year old Red Headed Stranger – still ponytailed, though now mostly gray –  played outdoors at the Borgata Festival Park in Atlantic City on Sunday, and he was frisky and inventive all night long.

The tour stop with openers Old Crow Medicine Show was billed as a “Willie Nelson & Family” concert, but with Nelson’s sons Lukas and Micah off backing up Neil Young this summer, the only family member on stage throughout the briskly paced, 90 minute set was his piano playing older sister Bobbie.

The other band members, though – starting with drummer Paul English and harmonica player Mickey Raphael, who have both been aboard since 1973 – are so simpatico with their boss that they might as well be blood relatives. And they follow their amiable Abbot, Texas-born national treasure leader – with a beat-up gut string Martin classical guitar, nicknamed Trigger, hung around his neck with a red white and blue strap – wherever he takes them.

On this breezy evening at the spiffy Festival Park, where the crowd mellowed out on a field of Astro-Turf and marveled at the high quality bathrooms (air conditioned trailers, not port-o-potties), the masterfully understated, nasal-voiced singer led the way on a gypsy jazz tour of the country, blues and roots music that is commonly known as Americana but might just as accurately be called Willie Nelson Music.

Kicking off with his version of Johnny Bush’s “Whiskey River,” Nelson dove right in to the stream of Zen wisdom that coarses through his ragged but right body of work, calling out for “Still Is Still Moving To Me.” “I can be moving or I can be still,” the (still) always on the road singer sang. “But still is still moving to me.” The set that followed was full of forward momentum as it delivered self-penned signature songs (“Nite Life,” “Crazy,” “Always On My Mind”) that were tinged with melancholy as Nelson, as his wont, let his scratchy voice linger as he sang behind the beat, pulling out hard earned life lessons (“Love’s the greatest healer to be found”; “Little things I should have said and done, I just never took the time”) as he moved steadily along.

There were covers of favored songwriters, with Ray Charles’ “Georgia On My Mind” slyly packaged with Billy Joe Shaver’s “Georgia On A Fast Train,” and nods to Tom T. Hall and Hank Williams. The only guitarist in the confidently ambling band, Nelson played brittle, expressive leads, saying as much, as always, with the notes he didn’t play as with those he did.

Two thirds of the way through, he got around to Django & Jimmy, his new album with old pal Merle Haggard, named after their heroes Reinhardt and Rodgers, with the jokey but well crafted “It’s All Going to Pot.” The song was a cheery crowd pleaser fro the intergenerational audience, but its puns about the passage of time and the recreational weed that Nelson’s name is synonymous with gave way to songs that each, in their own way, were about death.

Nelson brought Old Crow on stage for two spirited hymns that confront the afterlife with doubt and belief in “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?” and “I’ll Fly Away.” And he also he another cheeky marijuana song – sung in the set and then reprised as an encore with his openers – that suggest that best use for his remains when he passes away: “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.”

Nashville string band Old Crow’s members switched up their instruments – guitars, banjo, mandolins, harmonicas, fiddles – throughout an hour plus set full of breakneck speed fiddle tunes and two stepping honky tonkers. Leader Ketch Secors is relentlessly energetic showman, and  he fronts a spirited unit whose fleetly-flecked idea of a good time is expressed in the song “8 Dogs, 8 Banjos” from 2014’s Remedy, which celebrated various pleasures including “hot coffee, sweet tea” and “corn whiskey, dirt weed.”

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